The other night I went to a high school football game. Around me were many of the mothers and fathers of the boys who played on the field. The parents watched as their young warriors relentlessly collided into one another. Occasionally they would cheer as bodies and heads were repeatedly smashed, banged, bruised and bashed.
It occurred to me that these children were being actively encouraged by their parents to engage in this violent and injury prone sport. The fierce and brutal actions taking place on the field were not just being condoned by their caretakers, they were being rewarded by hand claps and ovations.
As I watched these parents, I wondered how many of them would let these same children get anywhere near a returned Ebola health care worker who had tested negative for the disease and had shown no sign of the illness.
Several weeks ago a few headlines were made by the fact that three high school football players had died within days of each other. Many of these articles cite a 2013 study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine that found football related fatalities in college and high school averaged 12.2 per year. That averages out to about 1 per every 100,000 participants.
If we drill down a little further we find another 2013 study from the Institute of Medicine shows that high school football players suffer 11.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures (games or practices). Obviously these statistics do not include the thousands of high school football players who end up in the emergency department every year with dislocated shoulders and hips; broken bones; blown out knees and various other serious injuries.
Certainly Ebola has a much higher fatality rate than playing high school football. However, as it stands, the risk of contracting Ebola in this country is minuscule. On the other hand, evidence with regards to the risks of high school football is increasing and yet only a muted outcry has reached the public through our media megaphone. In other words, we know that putting our children on a football field is full of potential risk, both in the short and long term, and yet the band plays on.
At this point, evidence is suggesting that highly conservative quarantine measures for returning Ebola health care workers are unwarranted if proper protocol is exercised and actual cases are successfully isolated. Overly conservative quarantine measures may not only be medically unnecessary, they also have other possible unintended consequences: a threat to our constitutional liberties, economic disruption and the potential to limit the effort and ability of health care specialists to treat the outbreak where it is actually located.
Bumping up the incredibly small risk of contracting Ebola against the increasing risks of intentionally placing adolescents into a dangerous and violent contact sport is a fascinating riddle ripe with many of the problems that confront our current zeitgeist. For example, ignoring research findings that don’t agree with prevailing political ideology or concerns. Or, a cultural belief system that still places football in the same innocuous category as apple pie and Chevrolet. It also speaks to an ethical dilemma that puts profit over people.
On a hopeful note, the numbers seem to be shifting. There appears to be a downward trend in the amount of children participating in formal football programs. Like the cigarette wars of decades past, the real threat posed by football to the masses will probably take many years to seep into our collective conscious. However, unlike the more hidden damage of threats like smoke and other inhaled pollutants on the body, the visceral effects of football are immediately discernible, real and deadly in both the short and long term.
So what’s the problem?
Donald Michael, in one of his many fascinating essays on meeting an increasingly complex future, posits that:
Arguably, the most profound threat to the development of a planetary civilization is the inability of leaders to admit that there are fundamental circumstances with which we must deal that cannot be acknowledged. In part this is because to do so would require confessing that, as of now, we do not know how to deal with them. What is more, this inability to acknowledge this mute state of affairs is also part of the situation that cannot be acknowledged. (Leadership’s Shadow: The Dilemma of Denial)
To be clear, I don’t necessarily believe the issue of high school football falls into this category. President Obama recently had the temerity to state that he would not let a hypothetical son play the game. However, he seemingly doesn’t know how to deal with the larger problem. Regardless, it’s far simpler to ring our collective hands about a scary and infotainment ready threat like Ebola than to deal with the complex machinations of the football industrial complex.
Ultimately, there is one given in my Ebola vs. high school football question. Although parents cannot protect their children from the possibility of contracting the disease (however slight the risk) they can powerfully deal with the real short and long term ravages of the game. They can simply “just say no”.
Jeff Kaliner is a public health emergency preparedness professional with twelve years in the field. As a child and adolescent he spent an unreasonable amount of time thinking about and playing sandlot and high school football. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Master of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University.